Chapter 26 (part 5)
She awoke later to the smell of pancakes and the sound of birds chirping merrily outside, sure indicators that the weekend had begun. Pancakes were strictly a Sunday breakfast item, and the only time she ever noticed early morning sounds such as the singing of birds were those rare occasions when she wasn't rushing to school because of oversleeping. And the only day of the week she didn't rush to school happened to be Sundays, mainly due to the fact that there was no school on that most blessed day.
A curious phenomenon indeed.
Well, good. It being Sunday meant that she could sleep in a while longer – which was something she fully planned on doing. Anything to savor that incredible dream a while longer. And who knew? The dream was still fresh in her mind, making re-entry into its world a very possible thing indeed.
Yawing, she steadied her breathing and closed her eyes, resolute that the next time she opened them, it would be on the other side of the waking world. The birds on her windowsill were providing a lullaby to ease the journey, and the slanting sun made for a warm blanket.
Call me Usa, she thought wistfully, randomly. Take me in your arms, hold me tight and promise me we'll be together always.
Very nearly there by now, the girl beneath the covers wrinkled her brow and groped her pillow in a way that suggested she was being forcibly pried away from something far greater than anything the ordinary world had to offer.
Don't. Please don't. Let me go back. If only for a few seconds. Mercy. Have mercy.
But it was too late. That magical place had already shut its gates, barring any further entry, at least for today. Besides, Ikuko-Mama was waiting for her. Usagi knew this the same way she had known it was Sunday without having to be told. With that, it had been a combination of birdsong and pancakes that had clued her off. With this, it was Ikuko-Mama's scent, that aroma that swirled in a sweet fog around her and lingered long after she had left a room. Not a perfume exactly, but rather the smell of baked goodies and hand sanitizer.
"Usagi? Time to wake up."
Blinking against the golden sunlight, Usagi pulled herself up to a sitting position, arching her back as she did so. Her spine popped thrice in disapproval.
"Breakfast has been on the table for five minutes," Ikuko-Mama said, though not unkindly.
Usagi yawned. "I'm sorry. I was having a dream."
Tsking a sound of sympathy, Ikuko-Mama reached out and placed a hand across her daughter's forehead as if checking for a fever. "Poor thing. Better not tell it before breakfast, though, or it'll come true."
"Oh, it was a good dream!" Usagi countered, suddenly fully awake. "Most of it, anyway."
The urgency of breakfast now forgotten, Ikuko-Mama folded her hands across her chest and sat down at the foot of the bed. "Well, in that case, let's hear it."
Grateful to share all the things she had experienced while asleep, Usagi brought knees up to her chin and thought about how best to begin. After a moment of smiling contemplation, she said: "Well, for starters, I was a princess and a superhero."
Ikuko-Mama whistled. "A princess and a superhero? Goodness!"
"Yep, and I had this magic crystal and all the bad guys wanted it. They would start all these terrible fights over it but I never gave it to them. Never. Sometimes it was scary, but I managed to stay strong 'cause I had all my friends around me." Then, as if that statement warranted an explanation: "They were superheroes too."
"Now, you said you were a princess, right?"
Again, Usagi nodded.
Ikuko-Mama smiled. "So I guess you had your very own prince, huh?"
Usagi shrugged in an effort to bypass that particularline of questioning, but the blush that had suddenly appeared on her face spoke for itself.
"Aha!" Ikuko-Mama laughed. "I suspected as much!" Grinning ear to ear, she shot forward and assaulted her daughter with tickles, starting first under the arms, then moving down toward the feet where the sensation would be felt most. Usagi screamed in mock protest, squirming and slapping, but not really resisting. There had been a prince, actually – a handsome blue-eyed one with a devil's grin and the touch of an angel – but that part of the dream she preferred to keep to herself.
With a flip of hair, Ikuko-Mama righted herself and took Usagi's hand. "So you had this magic crystal…"
Usagi giggled. "Yeah, and then-"
"-and then you, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Cowardly Lion all boarded the magic school bus for Narnia, am I right?"
Reacting in tandem, mother and daughter swirled toward the doorway, duplicate expressions of annoyance on their faces.
He shrugged, frowning as if to say, Hey, lay off, would ya? then jabbed a thumb toward the downstairs. "Dad sent me up to see what's taking you guys so long." He snickered. "I had no idea I was interrupting fantasy fairyland time."
Ikuko-Mama sighed, patted her daughter on the check and arose. "Tell your father I'll be right down." And once Shingo had left to relay the message, she turned to Usagi, winking, and said: "Why don't you rest a little while longer? You might catch up to your prince yet."
It was then that Usagi noticed how pretty her mother looked. Even wearing that ever-present apron of hers, hair up in a home perm, there was a glow about her – a halo, maybe, one that ringed her face and erased wrinkles.
She paused at the door. "Hmm?"
"I love you."
The woman at the door smiled. "I love you too."
Then she was gone, vanished behind a closed door.
For a long while, Usagi continued to stare at the door as if she expected her mother to come rushing back in to hear more of the story. But the door remained closed and when it became clear that she wasn't coming back, Usagi slumped backward onto the pillows, sighing.
What a dream. What a crazy, crazy dream. Silver Crystals and Sailor Soldiers.
Still, it was easy to see where she had gotten some of that stuff from. The talking cat, for instance. She must've molded the one in her dream off her old cat Luna – the one Kenji-Papa had brought home from the pound as a Christmas gift a few years back. Ah, yes. Good ol' Luna, so named because of that bald spot on her forehead, the one that had kinda sorta looked like a crescent moon. What a good pet she had been. A little noisy, but lovable all the same. Of course, in real life she had been just a cat, just an ordinary milk-drinking, mouse-chasing house cat.
It'd be so cool if animals could talk, Usagi thought dreamily. I bet they'd have all kinds of neat stuff to say.
Oh, and that stuff about Sailor Soldiers? Easily explained. Naru had taken her to see the new Sailor V movie the night before: Codename Sailor V and the Death Specter. That, coupled with the five chocolate bars she had scarfed down in the theatre … well, it wasn't difficult to see why her sleeping mind had made all those weird connections.
And yet …. it was sad. Luna had died six years ago after being attacked by the neighbor's dog (a grisly event Usagi would never forget), and everybody new that Sailor V was just a manga comic strip, portrayed in the flesh by a blonde actress with several other movie roles to her credit. She wasn't real.
None of it had been.
It hit her all at once, that the friendships she had made in the dream were the products of a dream, and that her prince was merely the product of her mind assimilating a dozen different fairytales together.
The truth of the matter felt like a cinderblock on her heart, altering reality with a sweeping coldness. The birds on the windowsill had stopped singing, and when Usagi checked, she saw that they weren't even there anymore. A cloud had rolled over the sun, transforming the few scant rays left into sickly yellow strips of half-light.
A dream. All of it.
Lips trembling, Usagi wiped her running eyes along the edge of her bedspread. Now that the truth was out, so to speak, she felt terrible. She felt - in a word - duped. As if God Himself had orchestrated the dream as a fantastic joke at her expense.
How could she go on, knowing that the friends she had made, the things she had seen were all illusions of a dreaming mind? It had felt so real, though, all of it. So incredibly real – from the scenery, to the emotions she'd felt, to the kiss of her prince.
But it hadn't been real. Not one thing of it, and the sheer weight of that revelation was like an anchor around her neck.
I wish I never dreamed it, she thought through the barrage of tears that followed. It would've been better that way. At least then I never would've known what I was missing.
And she was still crying later as the sun darkened completely and the sound of thunder rattled the house.
The caress of a finger against her cheek, the warmth of lazy morning sunshine, the kiss of her prince – these were the things that ushered her awake some time later. Her journey back to consciousness was a gradual one, however, characterized first by the awareness of starched bed linens against her skin and the presence of another hovering close by.
Sighing away the last fragments of sleep, Usagi opened her eyes to find Mamoru gazing down at her with a sly grin playing across the corners of his mouth. Sunlight glared across his bare back, transforming the man into a statue of bronze.
"Good morning," he said, tracing his right hand over the side of her face. With the other he combed out her hair, which ran across her side of the bed to the floor in silver tangles.
"Good morning, Mamo-chan," she replied as she pulled the covers to a higher position. She frowned. "Seems like I was watching a long, long dream."
Sheets rustled and bedsprings whined as Mamoru crawled to a position atop her. He had wiggled partly out of his silken cocoon (affording Usagi an unobstructed view of his undraped bottom) but he made no move to remedy the situation, which was something Usagi didn't mind in the least.
"What kind of dream?" he asked with a smile.
A good question, that. For when she tried to remember, she found she couldn't. It had been a sad dream, at any rate. One that had brought tears to her eyes. Really, it had been more like a dream within a dream. Or the answer to an unasked prayer.
After puzzling about it for several seconds, Usagi merely shrugged. "I forgot." She reached forward again, meaning to take Mamoru's face in her hands, but stopped. Somebody had pulled all the curtains aside from every window in the room, flooding the chamber with the bright light of a newly risen sun. The skies outside were crayon blue - the seas on which fluffy cotton ball clouds sailed. And beneath that canopy sat the Crystal Palace, a hazy mirage of limpid spires framed by the orange sun.
It looked even more beautiful in the daylight. And it was real. Most definitely not a dream.
He raised an eyebrow.
Smiling, she took him in her arms and pulled him close. Their heads knocked together hollowly. "Can you say it again?"
He sighed and closed his eyes wearily. "I said it fifty times last night."
Still smiling that patented impossible-to-resist smile, she held up a finger as an indicator of her sincerity. "Just once more."
"Last time," Mamoru warned.
Then he was on her, skin on skin, his hands on her throat, his toes tickling hers.
"Let's get married, Usa."
The month that followed flew by as a swirling avalanche of foreign dignitary meet-and-greets, private consultations, and formal dinners. By the end of that first week after Death Phantom's assault on Tokyo, the whole world knew the name Usagi Tsukino and the secret she had carried since the 8th grade. From the lowliest peasant to the richest oil tycoon, from Japan to South America, the name on everyone's lips, the one thing lighting up the Internet chat rooms, was Usagi Tsukino – this girl who had emerged from nowhere to become the sovereign Queen of the Earth. It was, as many papers had labeled it, the story of the millennium. And while Usagi didn't know if she agreed with that, she had to admit her story had certainly captured the world's attention. She herself didn't understand the public's sudden fascination with everything "Usagi", but guessed most of it had to do with the novelty of the whole situation. Time magazine, in its special edition proclaiming Neo-Queen Serenity "Person of the Millennium", had described her ascension to power as a true-life Cinderella story, a wondrous paradox of fairytale and reality, of authentic magic and political intrigue.
The public adored her, wanted to know everything about her – everything from the brand of hand soap she used, to the kind of car she drove, to her prediction on who would win that year's Super Bowl. And though she found the media scrutiny chronicling her every step rather ridiculous, she took it upon herself to play along. She approved and participated in every interview request, no matter who was doing the reporting or what larger entity they represented. She also made a special effort to respond personally to every letter addressed to her. Most happened to be from children, as evident by sloppy penmanship scrawled across the page in crayon or marker. These letters, so sincere and heartfelt with their childish congratulations and earnest pleas for help, moved her in such a way that she felt compelled to respond back to each and every one. In writing back, she often found herself staying up 'till the wee hours of the morning in one hotel room or another, painstakingly translating her response in Japanese back into the letter's original language. This she accomplished with the help of an online translation program. It was hard work keeping track of every little note with her name scribbled across the top, but she didn't mind. After the first barrage of fan mail, she had made up her mind that a form letter with her name literally stamped to the bottom wasn't going to cut it.
She didn't mind, not in the least, but attending to these matters did take up a great deal of time.
So much so that when the day of her wedding finally came, she found herself taken completely off guard. Gallivanting all over the world had left very little time for any sort of preparations to be made, and in the end, Usagi found herself left with no other option but to hand the wedding reigns off to other, more capable hands. This lack of control over the biggest day in her life had been a great source of anxiety for her (as she imagined it would be for any bride). Now, however, hunkered down inside the vestibule of Tokyo's last remaining church, she saw that she needn't have worried herself. What she had seen of the decorations had taken her breath away.
And her dress! Haute couture, and constructed of the purest, whitest silk and taffeta, Usagi had known the instant she'd seen it that it was her dress. It had been made especially for her by some famous Parisian fashion designer whose name she couldn't quite remember at the moment. Which was really a shame since the gown could very well be considered a piece of art in its own right. Fresh roses (white ones, of course) trimmed the bodice, the neckline, the puffy sleeves. Flowers had also been sewn into her hair, which was bound up in quadruple odango. These held the veil in place, all 20 feet of it – which was long, but not quite as long as the 40-foot train attached to the dress itself. Her earrings (pearl dangles) and necklace (pearls again, wound thrice around her neck) had been lent to her by another fashion house – and though they had given up the jewelry as a gift, Usagi had every intention of returning it all after the reception.
Yes, everything had turned out beautifully. The only thing Usagi had been adamant about was that the wedding be held in Tokyo. Other locations had been suggested, from the palace of Versailles, to the Sydney Opera House, to America's Grand Canyon. It seemed every country on earth wanted to host the event and would stop at nothing until theirs was the location chosen. But Usagi had graciously declined every offer with thanks. Tokyo was her home, the place from which she drew strength. No other location, however grand, would do.
The city was still mostly in ruins, but the construction cranes dotting the landscape were positive signs pointing toward new growth. New immigrants were arriving daily and by the hundreds, all flocking to the Crystal Palace, which Usagi had established as a permanent home for the temporarily homeless. These new residents, impressed by the graceful beauty of the Palace and the profound kindness of its Queen, had thus dubbed the city "Crystal Tokyo" – a title that, at this point, was more of a nickname than anything else. But Usagi knew it was only a matter of time.
Just a matter of time.
Speaking of which…
"What time is it?"
Shingo, dressed to the nines in tuxedo and diamond cufflinks, consulted the pocket watch pinned to his vest. Besides the two of them, the small entrance chamber was empty – a stark contrast to the hoards of paparazzi lying in wait just outside.
Sighing nervously, Usagi switched the white rose bouquet from left hand to right. "It was supposed to start at noon, wasn't it? Wasn't that what we decided?"
Shingo rolled his eyes. "You're freaking. Just relax, for crying out loud." Then he smiled and shot his sister a coy side-grin. "To be honest, I'd be much more concerned about walking down the aisle without tripping if I were you."
He'd meant it as another one of his brotherly jabs and Usagi took it as such, reacting just the way she always had in these situations – with sisterly annoyance.
"Shingo, do me a favor and shut your face, okay? I don't need this right now."
He shrugged. "I'm just saying. That's a lot of fabric you're wearing. It'd be tragic if you fell flat on your face on your wedding day. Right in front of everybody?" Whistling, he looked down to adjust his tie, smirking all the wider. "I mean, can you imagine? What would your guests think?"
Usagi narrowed her eyes, popped her hip and frowned. "Once again, may I remind you that I am your Queen and that you exist only as an extension of my continued mercy? All it would take is one word from me and I could have you exiled into the nearest black hole."
"So you keep reminding me."
The vestibule was silent then – silent save for the occasional muffled cough from the wedding guests inside and the sporadic snap of cameras outside. The time for jokes had ended, it seemed.
Usagi shifted on her feet.
The doors in front of her remained closed.
Mamoru was on the other side, and she felt certain that he was as anxious to see her as she was to see him. When she had rolled up to the church in that … ostentatiousgolden couch (drawn by eight white horses), she'd been in a nervous sweat and had, in fact, wished for just another day to prepare for the experience. But now, standing at Shingo's side waiting for the chapel doors to open, she found she just wanted to get the blasted thing over with. They had waited far too long already. A thousand lifetimes, in fact.
"You really are very pretty. Mom and Dad would be proud."
The words sneaked by Usagi at first, but when they did register (a full six seconds later), she snapped her head back in Shingo's direction so suddenly she nearly lost one of the ornamental roses pinned into her hair. She found him staring blankly ahead at the doors, his lower jaw locked tight as if the mere act of giving a compliment to his sister had resulted in a foul aftertaste.
This struck her as immensely funny but when she opened her mouth to comment, there came the tremendous blare of an organ staring up, the signal for everyone to assume their places.
Taken off guard, Usagi let loose with a startled cry as she jumped back into position. The nerves were back. Just take it slow, she told herself. One foot in front of the other. Baby steps. And for the love of all things sacred, don't trip!
Nodding in spite of her thrashing heart, Usagi linked her arm through Shingo's and the two of them proceeded onward through the newly opened doors, brother escorting sister. They processed forward to violin accompaniment; the harsh organ having gave way to the sweeter sound of Michiru strumming bow against strings. The tune was a unique composition of hers created just for the occasion, one that combined the traditional rhythms of a wedding march with the more subdued tempos of a classical piece. To Usagi's ears, it sounded almost harp-like, like the peaceful whispers of a dozen angels.
Walking up the pedal-strewn center aisle, Usagi heard Michiru but could not spot her. And really wasn't looking, for the loveliness of the interior cathedral had wholly captured her attention, almost to the point of total distraction. Yellow cymbidiums had been strung along the ceiling in loose garlands, providing warm yellow accents against the dark wooden arches. Silver lampposts strewn with the same flower stood at even-spaced intervals along the pews, lighting the bride's way forward via flickering flames behind glass panes. The natural light beaming through the stained-glass windows, with their depictions of the life and times of Jesus Christ, was prismatic, colored every shade of the rainbow. This, Usagi thought, was perhaps the most beautiful decoration of all – this vibrant fresco of lighted color shining across the faces of her many guests.
They had stood with the sounding of the organ and now watched silently, smiling, as their new Queen walked between them on her way to be joined with their King. They filled every seat from the front to the back, amounting to little more than a sea of flamboyant hats and suited shoulders.
When composing the guest list, Usagi had found herself left with a strange mishmash of political bigwigs intermingled amongst old friends - something she now saw in a new light as she continued onward toward the front of the church. Standing just there was the President of the United States along with the rest of the First Family, all dressed in their Sunday finest and wearing what appeared to be genuine expressions of happiness on their faces. Tacked to the President's lapel was a crescent moon pin, an outward symbol of the alliance he planned on building with the Silver Millennium. Standing next to him was the Queen of England herself, looking lovely in a lime green frock and matching bonnet. She winked as Usagi passed by, a subtle acknowledgment of that time a month ago during their initial meet-and-greet when Usagi had tripped while trying to perform the customary courtesy. And a few pews up from her, Usagi spotted a turbaned individual she thought she recognized as the emir of Dubai.
The famous faces in the audience did not faze her in the slightest. What would've seemed like a dream a month ago had since taken on the comfortable rhythm of the commonplace. Reality had finally set in (probably in no small thanks to the Usagi Tsukino commemorative plate she had seen being advertised on television – trimmed with 22-karat gold, a stirring tribute to Earth's Queen, order now! … plate stand not included).
The title of Neo-Queen Serenity was no longer one she shied away from. Indeed, perched atop her head, among the floral wreath of white roses, was her crown of office.
Walking ever onward, Usagi took note of the seating. Important though the Presidents and Prime Ministers and visiting royalty might have been to the outside world, they were nevertheless relegated to the pews furthest from the altar. Seated in the positions of honor were the commoners, the unwashed public, the old and cherished friends. She saw Naru and Gurio, both dressed to impress, she in a flowing yellow summer dress, he in a tuxedo of blue ruffles. She saw Unazuki and nearly cried when she blew her a kiss and twittered her fingers in a wave. She saw everyone who had ever meant anything to her. Old friends and new. They had all gathered here in this place under the banner of love and matrimony.
Another step and Usagi found herself mere feet away from the end of the aisle. Realizing this, she turned her attention forward and found herself in tears as she gazed upon her Prince, her King, her soul mate eternal.
She had seem him wearing the battle armor of a Prince prepared for war, had seen him wearing cape and mask and top hat as the phantom hero Tuxedo Mask, had seen him wearing nothing at all, but it was this version of Mamoru that struck her dumb.
It was a wedding, and his attire proved it. Unlike the purple tuxedo he wore during his rounds as King, the one Usagi was looking at now was deepest black, complete with tails. Green crystal ornamentation, made to resemble the needles of a budding pine, twinkled merrily along the edges of the suit, trailing from collar to tail. Pinned over his left breast were three medals, the Victoria Cross, the French Légion_d'honneur, and a unique version of the Congressional Medal of Honor. All three were badges of valor that had been presented to Mamoru along with the rest of the Sailor Soldiers a month ago. Smaller copies, ones easily attached to the average-sized collar, had been awarded to Luna and Artemis. Usagi remembered being given a set as well, but hadn't come across them in the time since and considered them now lost forever.
But enough of that. The music had stopped, Michiru had reassumed her place among the rest of the wedding party, and Shingo was now giving her away.
The wedding party. Chuckling softly to herself, Usagi shook her head and took another look. It looked so terribly unbalanced, what with the bride and her eight maids of honor juxtaposed with Mamoru's sole groomsman. Poor Asanuma. He looked so bewildered standing there, as if Mamoru had spirited him off to the church in the midst of an afternoon nap. But as it had been Mamoru doing the kidnapping, Asanuma had allowed himself to be taken without complaint. It was no secret that the boy admired him, and had since his days as the King's underclassman. His starry-eyed respect had all the makings of an unrequited man-crush, which was all the more hilarious as neither he nor Mamoru seemed to be aware of it.
"Who gives this woman to be presented to this man?"
And then there were her girls, her (count them) eight maids of honor. Standing to Usagi's left, they had arranged themselves in order of height, with Haruka bringing up the rear and Hotaru poised closest to the altar railing. Each carried with her a different bouquet; each wore a different gown of matching ivory.
Having them all together again was enough to bring a fresh tear to Usagi's eye. For in the days since that night, each girl had gone her separate way. It had taken a lot of convincing on Usagi's part, but eventually she had succeeded in setting them free from the bondage of duty. I want you guys to be happy, she had told them. I want you to follow your dreams and make them into reality. You've given me so much, the gift of your friendship, your power in battles … you've given me so much. It's only right that I should repay your kindness.
It had been difficult to get them to understand at first, but Usagi had finally gotten them to see things her way after forcing them to sign a new pact under her direct royal order. The sole requirement of this new concord? To follow dreams, however distant.
And follow them they had.
Haruka and Michiru had left for parts unknown, their professional lives as motocross racer and artist temporarily put on hold as they worked toward a new understanding in their relationship.
Setsuna had purchased an empty lot within the leveled Shibuya district with hopes of eventually transforming the desolate spot of land into a clothing boutique which she hoped to fill someday with her own designs. This news had struck Usagi as particularly interesting, as she had no idea Setsuna enjoyed fashion. But then, wasn't that the whole point of this little exercise?
Following Setsuna's example, Makoto had also become a landowner, with aspirations toward becoming the head chef of her own restaurant. Intimate bakery or five-star dining establishment, she hadn't quite decided. And if the tabloids were to be believed, her personal life had also undergone a change of sorts with Asanuma's role in relation to Makoto going from friend to "something more". In this case, Usagi hoped the rumors were true. Motoki's death had hit her especially hard, but as the old saying went, you couldn't grieve forever. And she had been caught smiling more and more these days.
Hmm… Usagi made a mental note: Mako-chan and Asanuma. Don't let up. She would force them together if need be.
Moving down the line, she spotted Ami next, home from England. Unlike the other girls, the studious Ami had decided to continue with her education by enrolling at Cambridge University with the ultimate goal of completing her doctoral residency elsewhere. The choice of Cambridge as her college of choice seemed to have some special meaning to her, as many times during the application process, she had made statements alluding to the fact that she was "coming full circle." Whatever that meant, Usagi didn't know and hadn't asked.
Rei, however, had elected to stay right where she'd always been – the Hikawa shrine. With the passing of her grandfather, she had assumed the role of chief priestess, a position she assured Usagi was congruent with her own dreams for the future. Her decision to continue on with her previous life was more easily said than done, however, in light of the continued media interest surrounding the members of the Sailor Team. In the days following the "Death Phantom Incident", the Hikawa Shrine had become little more than a tourist destination, packed daily with the curious public and bloodthirsty paparazzo – both eager to catch a glimpse of the elusive priestess. This drastic change in temple clientele had led Rei to declare herself permanently unavailable for interviews or photographs, and if any over-eager shutterbug had a problem with that, she had no problem introducing them to her bamboo broom.
Minako, on the complete other hand, had taken to the spotlight like a clown to a unicycle. In the few days since the Death Phantom attacks, she had moved to California, shortened her name to "Mina", shot a pilot for a daytime talk show (titled, appropriately enough, The Mina Show), landed a record deal, and purchased the rights for a future Sailor Moon movie project. Her tell-all book was due out next spring.
Slight movement from the corner of her eye caught Usagi's attention then, forcing her to turn away. Mamoru had partially descended the altar steps and now had a hand out. She took it after handing her bouquet off to the nearest bridesmaid and stepped up to his side.
Beautiful, he mouthed.
She squeezed his hand in response and turned to the priest, who had appeared almost miraculously before the church's plaster crucifix focal point. Like everything and everyone else, the man had been perfectly cast. The white chasuble draped over his shoulders was spotless, the crosses adoring the fabric stitched in gold. In one hand he carried a small book with golden-edged pages bound in white leather. His other he held high above his head, signaling that the ceremony had commenced.
"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today in the presence of these witnesses to join Usagi Tsukino and Mamoru Chiba in matrimony, which is commended to be honorable among all men. And therefore, is not by any, to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly – but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, and solemnly."
This admonition struck Usagi as particularly true and she nodded her head slightly in agreement. She then snapped her eyes back to Mamoru, who was looking on the priest with wrinkled-brow intensity. And as she continued to hold the strong line of his jaw in view, she found herself remembering.
The rush of green wind, the rustle of fresh leaves, that cascade of sounds you never heard while on the moon. And silhouetted against the lush background of forest, reclining alongside a babbling brook, a raven-haired youth, stripped to the waist to counteract the heat of the day. An earthling, the first she had ever seen.
That memory, worn and faded like an old photograph, rose to Usagi's mind and she smiled faintly at the recollection. How long ago had that been? A thousand years? A hundred thousand? It didn't matter. What mattered was that same boy was standing with her now, that he and she had defied the gods and emerged triumphant.
Endymion or Mamoru, Prince or King, whatever you were or will become, I'll never stop loving you.
He might've heard her on some level, for as soon as that private vow slipped through her mind, he gave her hand a soft squeeze and winked. She returned the gesture with a shy giggle and glanced quickly at the audience to gaze their reaction to this little bit of pre-marital flirtation. Either they hadn't caught it or didn't care, for every face she saw staring back at her was rosy and grinning. Every pew, every available standing space, was filled with that same face, duplicated over and over again. The only spot in the church left empty was the front row. Its polished wood remained empty, undecorated. That single row, left bare as a reminder of all the lives Death Phantom had taken.
And then there was Hotaru - Hotaru who could've very well been among those symbolized by that empty pew. Usagi caught sight of her holding two bouquets, one her own unique arrangement of tulips, the other the collection of roses Usagi had handed off.
Hotaru. With that alabaster skin and ivory gown, she resembled a perfect china doll. And actually, it was the first time Usagi had seen her out of uniform since that night.
Hotaru. In the past month, the girl had attached herself to Usagi as protector and bodyguard. In her constant guise as Sailor Saturn, she shadowed the Queen's every step, seldom speaking, always on the lookout for danger. She was a permanent background fixture during the interviews and photo shoots. She sat next to the Queen and King in planes (Silence Glaive always within arm's reach). She kept watch during the night outside the hotel rooms where they slumbered. And even when the call of nature sounded, she was always right outside the bathroom door.
Hotaru, Usagi remembered asking her once, don't you have something else you'd rather be doing? Don't you have a dream you want to chase after? I appreciate your company and all, but I want you to be happy.
And her response: I am. Protecting you, I find true meaning.
And that had been that.
"Love is patient. Love is kind."
My dear, dear Hotaru, Usagi thought.
"It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud."
And the rest of my girls –
"It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs."
I love you all like sisters, and I know –
"Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth. It always protects-"
Near or far –
Wherever we might find ourselves –
We can always find the road back home and find strength in the fact that –
"- and always preserves."
We are as one again.
And then came the time for the exchanging of vows, which bride and groom did facing each other while holding hands. They had prepared their own promises, and spoke them to each other through trembling breaths and the shedding of tears. As to what they said, that will have to remain a mystery. To write it down would be to cheapen the moment. Language alone is far too cumbersome a medium to convey the meaning of love as it was expressed there, in that church, on that day. Suffice it to say, however, that when the two of them had finished, there was not a dry eye to be found within the audience. The Politician and commoner had been reduced to tears alike.
Then the order for the rings to be brought forward was made. Hearing the proclamation, Luna and Artemis strolled down the aisle with heads held high and the wedding rings tied to ribbons around their necks. And when the two cats had reached the end of the passage, two small boys (babies, really) emerged from the crowd, untied the ribbons, and bestowed the rings upon the corresponding individual. Mamoru's (a simple band of plain silver) was given to Usagi by Frankie Mercer – who, in a life past, had been the child of Mamoru's American neighbors. And Usagi's (the same heart-shaped ring she had received that day in the airport two years ago) was handed to Mamoru by Isamu – the child whose simple faith had, once upon a time, birthed the Silver Crystal anew.
Once again, vows were made, but this time, they were accompanied by the exchanging of rings. And when that part of the ceremony had concluded, the joyful words rang out:
"I now pronounce you husband and wife!"
And before the priest could give his permission, the bride and groom came together in their first kiss as man and wide. And it was then that she felt it. Felt it for the first time – something like a stirring deep within the depths of her belly, followed by a warm sensation rising from her heart.
She knew immediately.
"What?" Mamoru's expression was troubled.
"I felt it," she whispered in a voice too low for anyone else to hear.
She took his hands then, smiled at the utterly clueless look on his face, and whispered: "The feeling that a new star will be born."
And then he knew, too. He took her again in his arms, kissed her once more (much to the audience's delight), and guided her carefully down the altar steps.
Soon we will have our daughter, she thought. A new Sailor Soldier.
Then, her bouquet reclaimed, she halted in her steps, causing Mamoru to quickly turn back.
"Oh, until the day we finish our duty, do you think we can protect this planet together?"
Mamoru nodded. "Of course."
Holding the roses beneath her chin, she decided to press the subject further still. "Can we live together? Forever?"
And to show her he meant it, he took her face in his hands and spoke these words as a golden crescent moon flared briefly to life upon her forehead: "We will always be together."
And with that, the expensive bouquet of white roses was dropped to the floor between them with a crunch.
I promise too, Usagi thought as she reached out for him with both hands. I will always protect you.
Their lips touched again, but now it was different. Now they were joined as one, husband and wife, expectant father and mother.
A moment later, Usagi broke the seal, bent, scooped up her flowers, and dashed back toward the vestibule, where her maids of honor had already gathered with outstretched arms. She ran betwixt a standing ovation, passing her past on the one side and her future on the other. She trailed back over her endless train and veil, minding not a bit that she was running them both in the process. And when she reached the end of her journey, she turned back to her husband and laughed.
The audience roared with approval, clapping and smiling and weeping all at once.
And as he stared back at her, Neo-Queen Serenity, framed beneath a cerulean sky with the moon hanging as a second sun overhead, the thought that came to his mind was this: Even someday when we disappear, and new Sailor Soldiers are born, Sailor Moon, you will always be invincible. The most beautiful shining star.
And somewhere, chained beneath the rocky mantle of the planet Nemesis, Death Phantom stirred.
* ~ The End ~ *
Authors note: Well, this is it. I want to thank you all so very, very much for your continued support. It's meant a lot to me these past few years. (Years. WOW.) I first encountered Sailor Moon by happenchance while surfing through the channels. I was in the fourth grade at the time and I've been involved in an ongoing love affair ever since. Thank you all again!